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December 29, 2007
Few gave West Indies any chance of breaking their downhill slide when they started the three-Test series in South Africa, but it has taken them just four days to turn things around in a quite spectacular manner. Thirty-one months after they last won a Test match, West Indies demolished South Africa by 128 runs, and inside four days, to take a 1-0 lead in the series. It provided a glorious finish to their year, and a glorious start to Chris Gayle's tenure as captain.
West Indies dominated large parts of the Test, but it seemed they had given South Africa a sniff when they collapsed on the third evening. They managed just 175 in their second innings, but their fast bowlers turned in another awesome display to ensure that 389 was more than enough runs to defend.
For South Africa, it was a shock defeat, their first at home to West Indies. For the second time in the match, the top order collapsed without a trace - the first four wickets went down with just 45 on the board. Jacques Kallis revived the run-chase with a flawless 85 and added 112 with AB de Villiers to give them a chance, but once he was at the receiving end of an unfortunate decision, the result was never in doubt.
The blows that made the difference were delivered within the first ten overs of the run-chase. The last time West Indies won an overseas Test against meaningful opposition - against England, in June 2000 - Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh were the new-ball operators, but Fidel Edwards and Daren Powell turned in the sort of display that even those legends would have been proud of.
Powell and Edwards began in superb fashion. They raced in, consistently clocking around 140 kph, and tested the batsmen with pace, swing and bounce. Powell kept it mostly on a good length around off, and attempted to beat the batsmen by swing and seam, while Edwards varied his length cleverly, either bowling it full, or attacking the body with well-directed short balls. One such delivery accounted for Graeme Smith, who tried to fend off a snorter, and could only glove it for Daren Ganga to take a diving catch at short leg.
By then South Africa had already lost two wickets: if Smith had a poor game with the bat, his opening partner had a nightmare. For the second time, Herschelle Gibbs was done in by Powell without scoring - this time, he shouldered arms to one which came in with the angle and was crashing towards off stump. It was his second pair in Test cricket - both of which have come in his last ten Tests - and his extended poor run suggests South Africa will have serious questions to answer before the next match. Hashim Amla, coming off successive hundreds in his previous two Tests, failed to negotiate Edwards' pace and swing, and when Smith fell soon after, South Africa were reeling at 20 for 3. It got even worse immediately after lunch, when Ashwell Prince failed to come up with the answers to Jerome Taylor's probing off-stump line.
South Africa's best batsman, though, was still around, and he batted like one. The footwork was precise, the defensive technique was immaculate, and the strokeplay was fabulous. Three glorious fours just before lunch - a cover drive, an on-drive, and a square cut, all off Taylor - were ominous signs for West Indies, and the break only made Kallis' concentration stronger. The on-drives were a feature of his innings, but he also cut and pulled powerfully. Powell tested him midway through the afternoon session with a fiery spell peppered with plenty of short stuff, but Kallis negotiated it all with scarcely a hiccup.
de Villiers, meanwhile, continued from where he had left off in the first innings, driving strongly square on the off side. Not only did the pair get plenty, they also did so quickly, scoring at more than three-and-a-half an over. Gayle even tried a few overs of spin, but nothing worked till Edwards banged in a short ball that Kallis tried to hook. The ball missed bat and glove, took his shoulder, looped to Denesh Ramdin who dived, held on to the catch, and then threw the ball in the air in sheer delight. Umpire Russel Tiffin agreed with the appeal, but replays indicated Kallis was hard done by.
Once Kallis fell, the rest was easy. Mark Boucher fell to the pull shot for the second time in the match, Paul Harris chopped one on to his stumps, and de Villiers holed out to mid-on. Dale Steyn and Andre Nel prolonged the innings with an entertaining 67-run partnership, but that was only delaying the inevitable. The end finally came when Makhaya Ntini spooned a top-edge to Powell. The celebrations were fairly low-key, which perhaps suggests West Indies are looking for much bigger rewards from this tour. The three-match Test series is, after all, only one game old.